For more than 10 years, the United States and the European Union have employed a policy of ever-tightening economic sanctions against Myanmar, in part fueled by the military government’s failure to recognize the results of a 1990 election won by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. While the political motivations behind this approach are laudable, the result has been overwhelmingly counterproductive. The ruling regime has become more entrenched and at the same time more isolated. The Burmese people have lost access to the outside world.
Sanctions by Western governments have not been matched by other countries, particularly Russia and China. Indeed, they have allowed China to dramatically increase its economic and political influence in Myanmar, furthering a dangerous strategic imbalance in the region.
Once again, what sounds good and feels good proves to be, well, not so good. The West now has effectively no leverage over the Burmese junta whatsoever, as Ban Ki-moon learned when his latest trip there went nowhere. The junta clearly will not release Aung Sun Suu Kyi, and even open trade with the West doesn't seem like enough of a carrot to persuade them to do so. They make boatloads of money letting China plunder their natural resources and by smuggling rubies and drugs out of the country. Burma's army is about the only functioning institution the country has, and the military regime isn't going anywhere anytime soon. It might feel good to huff and puff at the perfidy of the Burmese regime and sanction them, but closing their economy doesn't unduly punish the regime, and it does more to keep them in power than to remove them.
Webb makes one other good point:
[T]he United States needs to develop clearly articulated standards for its relations with the nondemocratic world. Our distinct policies toward different countries amount to a form of situational ethics that does not translate well into clear-headed diplomacy. We must talk to Myanmar’s leaders. This does not mean that we should abandon our aspirations for a free and open Burmese society, but that our goal will be achieved only through a different course of action.
If we could talk to Maoist China during the height of the Cultural Revolution, we can hold our noses and talk to this Burmese regime. It may not be pleasant, but that's foreign policy.